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St. Pete 2.0 Results: St. Pete still has a long way to go in efforts toward racial equity, inclusion

Megan Holmes

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The St. Petersburg renaissance has been in full swing for more than a decade. We’ve excelled in many areas and struggled in others. In our series St. Pete 2.0, we’re partnering with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership to explore what lies on the other side of our potential – what will it take to move to the “next level” as a city? Through this series, we’ll dig into specific topics with the hope that you, our thoughtful citizens, will share your insight, experience and wisdom.

In honor of Black History Month, at the beginning of February, we put out a survey asking our readers about racial equity. We wanted to use the forum of St. Pete 2.0 to take a snapshot of current community sentiments about race – authentically recognizing our difficult past, while also recognizing that most people in St. Pete want to move forward in constructive ways. We asked respondents to answer seven open-ended questions regarding racial equity. We asked them to assess the current state of equity, identify barriers to equity and suggest action items to help make the city more cohesive and supportive. We asked respondents about the roles of the city, education system and business community in making St. Pete a more inclusive and equitable city, and asked readers to identify what they would personally do to create such a city. Here’s what we found:

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being excellent and 1 being terrible, how would you rate the current state of racial equity in St. Pete? Why?

On average, St. Pete Catalyst readers gave St. Petersburg a 4/10 for racial equity. The most common reasons they cited were segregation, including the effects of redlining and segregated public education. Some readers said that they rarely see police and public servants who look like them, and that those they did see were outliers that did not reflect the rank and file of public employees.

Some saw the efforts toward inclusivity and equity as surface-level and lacking commitment. “I see us promoting ourselves as a progressive city,” said one reader, “(safe and inclusive place for women and LGBTQ people, which is great, but white supremacy and privilege exist in those groups) without committing to the hard work that it takes to dismantle racism.”

“Efforts to include residents of color are inconsistent at best,” said one reader. “Hand-wringing green bench apologia are insulting and miss the point and frequently degenerate into ‘get over it.’ There seems to be no coming to terms with the reverberations from demolishing 22nd Street South and 5th Avenue South and Methodist Town and the Gas Plant area to build the Trop and the completely unnecessary interstate spurs, which was, in effect, ethnic cleansing.”

Another reader pointed to the unrecognized history that much of the white community does not know. “There has not been a reckoning and healing about the effects and impacts of redlining and other racist policies in this community,” they said. “Most of the white people here are unaware of this history.”

Some decried uneven economic development across the city. “St Pete is exploding at the seams with growth but minorities are not benefiting from these projects.” Another said St. Pete’s revival has caused gentrification, which has in turn pushed middle class and working class citizens to the fringes of the city.

Not all comments were negative, however, many readers acknowledged the efforts of shared city spaces like the library and parks. Others praised the city’s forward progress over the last 20 years. Another gave residents credit for putting intentional effort into “having honest conversations about these facts and working to improve the conditions in our community.”

“But we are going to have to back up our words with actions if anything is going to improve,” they added.

What are the biggest barriers to creating a more inclusive and equitable St. Pete?

There was a general consensus among respondents that systems and policies were the biggest barriers to inclusion and equity in St. Petersburg. Many readers recognized that, as one respondent put it, “post-Obama race blindness” might appear equitable, but does not go far enough in creating truly equitable systems and leveling the playing field. “Part of the issue is the general systemic barriers that are constructed on a national and international level,” one reader said. “Until these have been transformed, no community will see true justice.”

The two most impactful and visible barriers to inclusion and equity, according to respondents, were a lack of affordable housing and an unequal education system. Respondents connected these two issues to major disparities in wealth and prosperity between the black and white communities in St. Petersburg. This wealth disparity, in turn, leads to stigmatization and stereotyping of South St. Petersburg and the people who live there.

“Education and exposure to opportunity,” said one reader. “It’s a lot easier to build strong young people than to go back and fix the issues that have affected an older generation.”

“We need quality pre-K,” said another. “We need to break down the barriers for black parents to access secure jobs, child care, schools, and housing. We need to recognize that black people are stopped, arrested, charged, and convicted at a higher rate than any other group, and this disparity has wide reaching effects from everything from being able to volunteer at their child’s school to finding work.”

Many respondents also noted the gentrifying forces of development and how disconnected development feels from the prosperity of the black community. They often connected this to racism and apathy toward the black community. One reader described it as “indifference, ignorance, failure to see that systematic degradation of public schools is racist, blindness on the part of those with power to systematic racism, craven behavior on the part of politicians, a lack of compelling moral leadership from city executives.”

What can be done to create a more cohesive and supportive city?

Often, we find that problems are much easier to identify than the right solutions. We wanted to gather wisdom from the community about what could change to make St. Pete more cohesive and supportive. Readers had a number of ideas about how to fix the barriers they identified. Many readers identified shared policy goals to great equity, things like better funding for public education, incentives for affordable and mixed-use/mixed-income housing, and a higher minimum wage.

Others offered St. Petersburg-specific solutions. “Continue upgrade in-place programs (e.g. Housing Rehabilitation Assistance Program, and “Rebates for Residential Rehabs” program) to enable lower income homeowners to improve their homes and avoid teardown gentrification,” one reader said. “Have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (à la South Africa) to recognize the historical and current racial injustice in Saint Petersburg (segregation, the razing of the Gas Plant neighborhood, etc.).”

A few readers focused on transportation and infrastructure, tangible physical ways to reduce barriers in the community. “Get rid of Interstate 375,” wrote one. “Extend and expand the concept of development to include the entire city,” wrote another. “Overhaul the PSTA instead of just sticking on Band-Aids (i.e., accept that the service will be a loss for say, 10 years, and then make it free, expand routes and the fleet itself and the number of drivers and maintenance workers, which would constitute desirable jobs) and integrate mass transit options with broader infrastructure efforts so we don’t suffer from some residents’ refusal to assist with a system that all could use.”

Others pointed to a change of culture and personal behavior. “Get out of our bubbles of comfort,” one said. “Make sure our voices of equity are louder than the voices of divisiveness.”

“Have meaningful conversations among white people, not just people of color, about actionable efforts to create a more balanced racial environment,” another said.

Others expressed frustration with efforts already underway. “With so much effort toward the young (not everyone can and will ride a bike), the LGBT community, and to certain areas of the City, it leaves much of the City feeling marginalized and as if the City is uninterested in their areas,” one reader said. “Efforts to be inclusive and cohesive must include all residents.”

“Perhaps [we should be] canvassing various neighborhoods to learn about what various communities want and need,” another suggested.

“I’m at a loss here. I’ve become frustrated and disheartened recently when engaging with this particular topic. When I see all of the changes happening around the city I, and others I know, wonder who is this for?” one reader wrote. “On the other hand, I’ve invited people to participate in the StPete2050 visioning process but no one has taken me up on it. It feels like the loudest voices, most connected and resourced will make the decisions and those of us who don’t fit into those categories are giving up our power to influence decisions.”

What role should the City play in creating a more inclusive and equitable St. Pete?

Readers identified a number of policies the City of St. Petersburg could enact in order to create a more equitable and inclusive city. From progressive zoning laws that have worked to increase housing stock in other cities, to enacting a livable wage, to providing more affordable housing particularly in South St. Petersburg, the list of policies suggested by readers is long. One particularly salient issue was a proposal that all St. Petersburg Police Department officers wear body cameras in order to reduce distrust.

“Bring white into traditional minority neighborhoods and vice versa. More interaction is key,” one reader wrote. “Improve public transit. Add rail or streetcars.”

“When minorities and women are discriminated against, their economic potential is capped, and they and the entire economy suffer,” another reader explained. “One way to remedy income inequality would be for the City to enact a living wage law (e.g. minimum wage of $15/hr., or support the pending Amendment 2).”

Others saw that city’s role as primarily a funder that they believe should be offering incentives in the form of grants or subsidies to support inclusive and equitable initiatives.

Others saw the city as an organizing vehicle. “The city should be a facilitator, curator, contributor, and ally towards creating a more inclusive and equitable St. Pete,” they said. “Their primary focus should be on how the organization itself can incorporate an inclusive and equitable lens to everything it does, from hiring to small business services.”

Another reader wrote that honesty about the city’s history should come first. “Confront history, own the city’s mistakes, and make real reconciliation efforts with our neighbors of color and make their priorities the city’s priorities,” they explained. “Right now you can’t claim that everyone counts, because the city’s priorities indicate that we don’t. However, you can change that.”

What role should the education system play in creating a more inclusive and equitable city?

Most readers believe the role of the education system is extremely important, some readers said they would like to see the education system take a more active role in equity and inclusion. “Integration of different races, incomes, political orientations, etc. in a school environment that fosters tolerance and understanding is essential,” one reader wrote.

“I believe this is extremely important,” said another reader. “Public schools inform our communities and create compulsory interracial engagement. Teaching children to interact with each other provides a foundation for understanding and friendship across differences.”

Others argued that supporting teachers, particularly black teachers, with better pay and more resources would allow schools to play a stronger role in equity and inclusion. “Improve public schools. Support public educators,” they wrote. “Attract the best teachers with housing deals, housing grants, tax breaks, whatever.”

Still others were hesitant to place more burden on already overworked teachers. “I think our teachers are already doing the best they can,” they wrote. “If the education system gets out in front of society in general, then social support for the education system will collapse. The education system is mostly made up of individuals who desire to help serve others – not necessarily cultural leaders and risk takers. Let’s not ask them to do more than anyone else.”

“Remove barriers for parental involvement,” one reader said. “More black teachers. Find a way to get to the heart of why poor parents and parents of color (not the same thing, by the way – poverty and race get overly conflated) have mistrust in the system and how to fix it. Not one or two meetings on the south side or at a historically black area, but sustained effort. Improved equity in gifted education.”

What role should the business community play in creating a more inclusive and equitable city?

The role of the business community, according to readers, is twofold. First, through fair, local hiring practices that intentionally seek traditionally unrepresented populations, equal pay for equal work and promoting employees of color to leadership positions. Second, through changing business models that are geared toward social entrepreneurship to create stronger communities.

“Give people of color a real seat at the table. If you’re white, be OK with being uncomfortable and believing people of color when they talk about discrimination,” said one respondent. “Be intentional in creating diversity and inclusion efforts in business, marketing, and through hiring and promotions. Support affordable housing and preserving the history of St. Pete … Recognize that business practices often buy into and reinforce stereotypes, and this city has recent and current race issues.”

“The future health of St Pete businesses hinges on an excellent school system for attracting talent now and for developing upcoming talent,” said another. “How can you attract top businesses if your schools are a joke? The bottom line for business needs to include elements beyond mere dollars. The well-being of the human beings who work at or are affected by that business needs to be paramount.”

“The business community must shift towards social entrepreneurship with a focus on creating a sustainable and equitable community,” said another. “This means innovating new business models that serve the community directly with resources from the area while being flexible to growth and change in the area.”

Multiple readers mentioned that businesses could do a better job of feeling inclusive to everyone, especially downtown.

“It’s interesting to see signs that say things ‘everyone is welcome here’ or ‘inclusive AF’ in places where I know I won’t feel welcome,” one reader explained. “Maybe this goes back to something the city (or Greenhouse?) could do to offer programs about inclusion? Espoused and enacted values differ of course but I think most people are intending to be inclusive, they just have very little understanding/context of why how St Pete’s history (and race relations broadly) still affect today’s interactions.”

“Downtown feels like it caters to white people,” said another. “We need capital investment in creating black businesses downtown and in traditionally ‘white’ neighborhoods (which are much more mixed than you think) and in hiring black people and other people of color.”

What are you personally willing to do to create a more inclusive and equitable community? What can your neighbors do?

Personal commitments surrounding creating a more inclusive and equitable community vacillated between excitement, timidity and skepticism. The most mentioned efforts included volunteering, getting more involved in neighborhood associations, and having more difficult conversations about race and equity.

“St. Petersburg is fortunate to have a long history of neighborhood associations,” said one reader. “They enable people to get out and meet their neighbors, and act locally to improve the city. There are also many interest-based groups, such as the many arts organizations that provide a sense of community while improving the city.”

“Whatever it takes!” said another. “I am involved in multiple civic groups, participate in conversations in our community about race, read, try to confront my own bias, learn about the history of this community, try to create more equitable spaces and policies in my work life, etc. I am sure there is more I could be doing. I am not sure that most of my neighbors realize there is a problem, so having that recognition is the first step.”

Others suggested day-to-day activities like patronizing black-owned businesses and attending multi-cultural events. “I choose to live in a diverse neighborhood,” said one respondent. “I choose to use public transit. I choose to put myself in situations where I will be exposed to diverse cultures and opinions. I actively listen to others and seek common ground.”

A few readers mentioned specific organizations they’re working with such as Indivisible 13, to change the community conversation, or independent projects like a Civil Rights musical to open up conversations, even if they’re awkward.

Still, others noted that some minds don’t appear to want to change, or that they don’t know how to approach difficult conversations around equity.

“I am not under the impression that everyone is seeking a more inclusive or equitable community (or any sense of community) but if it comes up/folks seem open, I share what I know,” said one reader.

“I am looking for an opportunity to engage,” wrote another. “But am afraid of coming across as a privileged white guy. I want to engage in a productive way, but do not know how.”

 

To engage in discussions around equity, this writer encourages you to look out for events held at the Center for Health Equity, convened by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. Check their website here: https://healthystpete.foundation/.

To share your opinions about how to make St. Petersburg more equitable and how to move forward as a city, join in on a StPete2050 workshop. More information here: http://www.stpete2050.com/index.html

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    March 2, 2020at7:15 pm

    This is a good read, it captured many pressing issues. There is still a sub-system of racism going on. People are being stopped after testing and qualifying for a position and being denied an interview and hiring and they are African American. Afraid to speak up because they believe it will totally kill their chances. ‘WHO you know’ is still very important in getting some positions with the Police Department and the City of St. Petersburg in some situations. People are afraid to speak up again because they believe it will be detrimental. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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